On post-religion

018 February 9, 2014 -- (cogitatio)

This article works under the assumption that religions in general have slowly evolved into mashups of ancient philosophical concepts and cultural habits that are presented as timeless but which are in fact terribly outdated. The relevance of the centerpiece of religion (i.e. the all-knowing God) will largely be ignored here, although I will not fully discard it. Thus we will take Merriam-Webster and use the definition of religion as a starting point:

re·li·gion

Note that I lean more on the third definition than on the former two, since I believe that while a religion may be founded on the belief in a supernatural being, it is at least as important to consider the cultural and habitual aspects of religion. In other words, I can personally take the all-powerful and supernatural out of "God says that X" or "We do Y to please God" without depriving said sentences of meaning. I admit that I could be wrong in my assumption, but ignoring it would involve ignoring my own beliefs, something which no person of integrity would find acceptable. I shall thus proceed to the subject.

My previous research on what I call "post-religion" has so far yielded nothing, or at least nothing that I would find interesting. In any case, I hope that I'm not reinventing the wheel, or that I'm doing it through an approach that people will find relevant, to say the least. Either way, my main challenge is to define post-religion and illustrate it with examples.

I ended one of my previous posts called "Religion and the closed world assumption" on the following note:

Then again, in our mystical/spiritualistic conception of religion, we've deprived the concept of God of its worship-related semantics, or it's just that we're worshipping our own gods without calling them "God". But this is another story.

This idea stems from deep, philosophical questions such as "what is God?" or "what is it that we are worshipping?". If we consider for example Christianity, it is intuitively clear that it was the main focus of the cultural and social life during the fall of the Roman Empire(s) and later during the Dark Ages, though we might not be able to provide much historical backing on the latter. Thus books were mainly focused on telling tales of Christ and God and whatnot, while social activities, e.g. music, were focused on praising some form of God. I wouldn't go as far as to speculate that secular activities were rare, but once again, it's pretty clear that religious activities were commonplace.

This is one aspect of religion that has changed during our modern and post-modern times. Activities are now equivalent to little boxes: when we pursue something, we take a box, open it, enjoy its contents, then put them back into the box for later consumption1. Religion becomes thus but a box in this context, but a brick in the wall, but something people turn to in their time of need. This doesn't apply at all to fundamentalist religions, which are very much like Christianity was a millenium ago. It however applies fully to the Western civilization, the same civilization that in the 20th century embraced this "box-based" thinking along with something called the pop culture. This is essentially what I call post-religion.

In other words I define post-religion as the worship or religious attachement to things other than an omniscient, supernatural God. Said things come to define our (sub-)culture and our habits, defining our selves as post-religious persons.

The definition is as simple as it is outrageous. Let us then attempt to apply it to some real-life examples:

Hollywood, TV shows, books and the music industry: The term "fan" has become widely used in the last few decades. It's somehow fairly normal to be "a fan of X", where X is a music band or an author, book, movie, genre or whatever other product of pop culture. Little do people realize, although they know it, that the word comes from "fanatic", which fanaticism can be indeed observed amongst admirers2.

As an exception, some people have been known to die over their favourite X. As a common occurence, people gather in groups to worship their X, be it at conventions, concerts or in smaller gatherings. This is not dissimilar to Sunday masses, same as christening is not dissimilar to various rites happening in so-called "fraternities". I don't feel it necessary to expand the example further.

Sports: Interestingly, what started out as a play on war now ends up as a kind of adoration. Seen from a distant perspective, it is a strange ritual where people lazily get fat by eating junk and watching the war instead of actively participating in it. In reality it's no big deal, as the vulgus were fed the same "bread and circus" shortly before the fall of the Roman Empire.

On the opposite extreme, there are those who religiously practice otherwise innocent hobbies such as skiing, working out or running.

Eating habits: It's one thing to struggle keeping oneself from the clutches of food corporations, i.e. the post-religion of McDonaldism, and another to be a "vegetarian", or better, a "raw vegan". Traditionally, people have consumed whatever food they could, given their geographical position. This would reinforce the idea that post-religions arise out of modern constructs such as the free market.

Special mention: pseudo-scientism.

I note here that the space of post-religions is too big to explore exhaustively and these examples fulfill their role of illustrative objects very well. Basically post-religions have become a cornerstone for our contemporary civilization. In fact we could argue that post-religion itself has become such a cornerstone. One might wonder whether or not this foundation is not too shallow and/or fragile to sustain it. Either way, it would seem that we all need our gods to worship.


  1. This point on how people generally view "activities" could be argued. An example that stands out in its favour is Facebook, which organizes such concepts into "life events". Another trivial one is "work" versus "leisure". There are probably a million others. Either way, I am fully aware that "activities" might be an oversimplification.

  2. Also called "beliebers" in one particular case.